How to write a problem statement for a research proposal?

A problem statement is one of the main components of a research proposal in academia. Many students struggle to write them in a acceptable way.

Because of its importance, I’ll explain to you how to write a good problem statement for your research proposal.

Writing a problem statement for a research proposal
Writing a problem statement for a research proposal

Table of Contents


A problem statement is a form of knowledge, where a contradiction between theory and practice that affects society is interpreted. The solution is someone’s interest, and it contributes to a certain area of knowledge.

Notice from the previous definition there are four terms in bold letters. Every time you write a problem statement, you should pay special attention to them.

In academia, we have at least three levels of research: undergraduate, master, and Ph.D.

Yes, you guessed right.  There are differences in the problem statement for each of the three.

Even though the same definition applies, the difference is as follows:

  • Undergraduate research: the definition just applies as is.
  • Master research: you must make sure that innovation is needed to solve the problem. An “easy” way to check if is enough for a master level, you can ask yourself why is this a problem for master research and not for undergraduate research?
  • Ph.D. research: The solution to the problem must be a contribution to the state of the art in the area of knowledge of the research. For Ph.D. research, you will find that the current theories are not enough to solve the proposed problem. Therefore, you must create something new (theory, theorems, methods, techniques, etc.) to solve the problem. Your contribution to the area of knowledge must be clear.

Characteristics that must be present in a problem statement

See below some characteristics that should be present in a problem statement. Every time you are going to write one, having these characteristics in mind, will help you write it better.

  1. It is a social need, expressed or coming from the society.
  2. It should represent a contradiction between theory and practice.
  3. The answer to the problem cannot be yes or no or be trivial.
  4. You can write it in both affirmative and interrogative ways.
  5. It should be specific, as opposed to too general.
  6. It must be feasible to find a solution.
  7. The solution cannot be part of the problem statement.

I want to emphasize the last characteristic because it is a very common mistake that students include the solution or the main objective as part of the problem statement. Doing that is just a mistake.

I suggest you use the characteristics as a checklist to find out if your problem statement is right or not.

Let’s examine one example.

Example of a problem statement

The models used to represent and analyze road networks in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), don’t guarantee scalability and efficiency when used to calculate optimum paths when the networks are large.

Notice from the previous example the following:

  • There is a need: “don’t guarantee scalability and efficiency”. In Computing, scalability and efficiency are always desirable.
  • There is a contradiction: “The models used …” “don’t guarantee scalability and efficiency when …”
  • The solution/answer to this problem is not trivial. You cannot just say how to make those models scalable and efficient or solve the problem by answering yes or no.
  • It is specific. We know how to measure scalability and efficiency when calculating optimum paths in a network.
  • There is a feasible solution. We cannot answer this only from the problem statement. We are supposed to do a literature review before writing the problem to get a better understanding of the situation and how to fix it. From that study, we should be able to answer if it is feasible or not to find a solution.
  • The solution is not part of the problem. As the solution is not trivial, we must develop it and prove that it solves the problem, and you cannot see it as part of the problem statement.

For the previous problem statement, an example of the main objective could be the following:

Develop a model based on reduced graphs for the representation and analysis of networks in GIS, which allows reducing the number of vertices without losing information.

As you can see from the previous objective, the proposed solution is not part of the problem.

Final observations

Notice that each academic institution has its own guidelines for research projects and the sections of a research proposal.

In some cases, you can find a section called “Statement of the problem”, in others “Problem statement”.

Those are really small differences (from the conceptual point of view) and are not against the ideas I gave you here in this post.

As final recommendations, before you submit your proposal check the following:

Check that your problem statement has each characteristic that I mentioned above. You can use them as a checklist before your submission.

Do not make your problem statement unnecessary long. According to my experience, every time a student uses more than one paragraph to specify the problem, there is something it does not belong there.

Some examples are:

  • Some students write one paragraph to give an extra explanation about the situation. That should be covered in the previous section, usually called “Background of the study”.
  • Others add an extra paragraph or sentence after the problem. In this one, they write how they plan to solve it. There is a rule that the solution cannot be part of the problem. This should be in the next section, usually called “Research Objectives”.

Be specific. Don’t try to fix the world with one research. Niche down your research to something specific enough and achievable.

Good luck!

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